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On the day before Santiago’s eighth birthday, we get on the road early and head north. The sun has risen, but it is not yet forty degrees. We pass through the city and the suburbs and the exurbs, through orange-coned construction zones, past brightly painted outlet malls, beside sleepy distribution centers. I use one hand to unwrap a slice of pound cake that I’ve laid on the passenger seat. Santi awakens behind me and puts his chin on the arm rest, his nose bunching as he inhales the butter-and-marmalade scent. I tear off a sticky chunk and share. From time to time, wind gusts shoulder the car closer to a field of grazing cattle or to a roadside flower mart or to a parked truck advertising a rodeo. The date for the rodeo provides no year, and I wonder, as the sun gleams on clapboard houses behind little stands of trees, whether it expresses an event that is to come or one that might have been had there not been a pandemic.

After ninety minutes, we pull in at a dairy. We get out of the car and stretch our legs. Though we have not been here for three and a half years, Santiago knows this place. He sniffs at the trees in the pet station, lifts his leg, then tugs me through the parking lot, toward where the asphalt disappears and the air smells of hay and sweet grass and horses. I bring him back to the car and enter the shop. I order a hot sandwich with egg and ham. I buy provisions and gifts: cheese, crackers, liquor, candy. The last purchase is a “puppy cup” for Santi: a few, generous mouthfuls of vanilla soft serve. It is for celebrating the strange joy of living in a body, year after year, on this little, blue planet, spinning in a galaxy made of dust and gas and darkness and stars.

We eat outside. Santiago guzzles the ice cream like it’s cold water on a steaming day, after which he begs for my sandwich. I share. We are in Wisconsin now, heading east. Our destination is the small town where my parents had a home for nineteen years. On weekends, it slept children and spouses and grandchildren, nieces and cousins and life-long friends. The living room windows looked out across low ferns and conifers, past the trunks of tall, skinny hardwoods to a lake that jogged like a jigsaw puzzle, with hollows for swans and wild rice. The kitchen windows took in the morning sun across a rock garden planted with roses and geraniums and coneflowers. At the end of a long driveway, my father built a wishing well, and the beds in the house were laid with quilts hand-stitched by my mother.

For twenty years before they moved to that house, my parents owned a cabin nearby. It was small and smelled of mold, and it faced a shoreline with soft, clean sand. There were mosquitoes and bats, bunk beds and a hammock, and a trail that led through the woods to an old gangster hideout. This lake country is where my family’s roots are deepest. It is where we smoked meat and toasted marshmallows and played lawn games; where we drank gin-and-tonics on a slow-trolling pontoon boat, searching for eagles among the trees; where we watched the sun set over the water and listened to loon calls in the cool, black night. In this place, teenage crushes were confessed and Sasquatch tales were told. This town is where we shopped after Thanksgiving, convening for lattés, splitting up to purchase gifts, bumping into each other at the candy store, year after year after year. It is where we marched in a Christmas parade, bells jingling on our elf hats, tossing candy as we accompanied a seaworthy tugboat formed by my father’s hammer and strung with lights.

Here, I swam in gray, September waters. Here, for the first time, Santiago played in snow.

The Earth spun. We aged. My parents moved closer to me, closer to my brother and sister. But I did not leave that place. Each memory is a story, and the stories are stacked in my mind like books on a shelf, piled top to side in a helter-skelter of delight, and when I pull them down for a look, the spines flop open to favorite passages and vivid illustrations, and the books smell of sunblock and wood smoke and cocktail peanuts and pine needles and roasted turkey, and score sheets from old board games fall from the pages, and my heart remembers, and I am not discontented, for I have lived.

I give Santiago some kibble, and he settles into the back seat. He understands where we are going; it will take us another ninety minutes to get there. Familiar landmarks–rivers and cemeteries and bars, a golf course, a fire station–grow large as we approach, then vanish in an instant behind us. When we pass the county sign–the last significant marker before we reach town–I swallow a few upstart tears. We cannot, of course, go to the house that my parents sold to others. We pull up, instead, at the library. Behind it is a park. My dad and his friends designed it. They cleared the paths, built the bridge and the benches, erected the kiosks. After a tornado touched down, they did much of the work a second time. They cared for this place as if it were their home.

The spring air is warming, and the sun shines in a blue sky through which the wind pushes fat, white clouds. Santiago knows the trail. He puts his nose to a statue just outside the woods and then, pissing, begins the extended process of greeting this ground after our long time away. The path is mulched and clear. Red pines tower above us, and small markers staked in the soil name the plants in the understory. Throughout the park, child-size podiums display the pages of a picture book: a tale of animals who live in this place and how they survive the winter. We linger over sites that we have remembered with fondness: the footbridge over a pond from which water lilies are rising to the surface; the preserved cross-section of a century-old oak; the forest pocket from which an entire flock of foraging grouse once took flight. In a glade, in front of an old row of benches, we encounter a new, open-air stage. Santiago crosses the boards and stops, as if a spotlight shone upon him and he were about to deliver a tender monologue.

In the gardens at home, I have been snipping the hollow stems of last year’s perennials. The bees who might have slumbered within them, warm in the snow, are now at the dandelions, which have already bloomed and gone to seed and are standing naked and reedy in the lawn. I don’t uproot them; I like their sunny faces and bitter leaves and the blowzy way they depart when it is time. I trim the grass around the beds and prune Virginia waterleaf where it hangs over the other vegetation like a poncho. I fill the bird feeders and scrub the bird bath. There are twigs to rake and catkins to sweep, and these duties assert themselves day after day. The air smells of lilac and lily-of-the-valley, but there has been no rain for weeks, only the cloud spittle that makes the car in the driveway even dirtier. I get out the watering can. I sprinkle the potted herbs and the plants that are blooming: the Jacob’s ladder, the Jack-in-the-pulpit, the maidenhair fern sprung up suddenly high and gangly. I do not want to waste water. But the rain doesn’t come. I get out the hose. I am not sure of the right way to provide nurture.

We come to the edge of the park and Santiago starts across the road. I hold him back. We have never been here before. But a footpath is visible on the other side of the asphalt and, beside it, a sign with faded print. I release my hold, and Santi leads us to another set of trails where spring azure butterflies flit across the forest floor. It is impossibly quiet. Trees have not yet leafed in the north, and only the thinnest blades of grass poke out from straw-like patches beneath our feet. We follow the shoreline of a lake that is blue-gray and shining as the wind ruffles it. Pine cones loll in the shade.

This is the state where my great-grandparents met and married, where they built a house and raised sheep and children. With its lakes and hills and woods, it reminded my great-grandmother of her birthplace in Sweden. The railroad stopped bringing their sheep to market, and they moved to Colorado. The land was dry, and Grandma called the fencing poor, no good for shepherding. She never took to the place. When she was very old, she labored in a garden behind her cottage, growing irises that reached her hips and made her smile. She lost her wedding band in that garden. It wasn’t found until after she had been laid in the ground. Every morning, I slip it on my finger.

When we have walked for hours, Santiago and I make our way back to the car. I open all the doors and give him water and kibble. He waits patiently on Main Street while I buy a latté, and as we head southwest, he sleeps. The sun is hot on his back. Signs along the road warn residents and passers-by that fire danger is high. Near the place where, on a cloudy morning years ago, a deer stepped on graceful legs into the road before my front bumper, disappearing into the trees as I crushed my brakes and my heart beat against my eyes, we pass acres where the woods have been removed. Half a dozen yellow trucks lumber over the bare earth.

The road trip wasn’t for Santiago. It was for me. I was thirsty. I needed a latté.

The next morning, it is Santi’s birthday. We leave the house on foot, before breakfast. It is his favorite way of waking up. He chooses an excellent route, one that loops through five parks, crossing back and forth over train tracks on sneaky trails whose stories he remembers. We watch a woodpecker knocking at a fallen snag, and swans floating in a marsh below a transmission tower. In the afternoon, I give him cheese. In the evening, I climb onto the couch beside him, facing him like a lover, my hip hanging off the cushion, breathing his breath, scratching his chest as he purrs.

We met a man on the trails in Wisconsin. He was young. He wore shorts and a tee-shirt and sunglasses. He rode a fat tire bike and approached–almost without sound in the impossibly quiet woods– from behind us. After he had passed, he turned his head and called into his wake.

“That’s a handsome dog!”

A short while later, at the library park, we met a gray-haired couple, both tall and rangy. They wore faded sweatshirts and walked with their grandchildren. They let Santiago jump on them.

“He’s like ours,” they said. “We just lost him. Ten years old. In bed. Didn’t wake up. We weren’t ready.”

This is the place where Santiago and I live: between our handsome youth and the death that will come too soon. I have been happy, and the consequence of my happiness is that time is moving faster than I have ever known it to move. I water the bare ground where–as the planet spins–the slimmest shoots of prairie clover and butterfly weed will emerge. I wash dishes and fix toilets, shake out rugs and turn the compost, hang out laundry and sweep the floors. These cares assert themselves day after day. And day after day, I walk with my companion in the peace of the morning until we are spent. In attending to this place, I am satisfied.

My parents, too, have birthdays in May. One afternoon, they take me to a park near their home in the suburbs. The trees in the wood reach toward the light–poplars and ironwoods and red oaks, and flowering shrubs that we touch and try to name. They have leafed and arch over us, and moss grows on the rotting logs scattered in the brush, so that to walk here is like walking the wide aisle of a great cathedral in which the stained glass windows are all in shades of green. We encounter turkeys on a hillside and a tiny, white-haired woman who walks briskly, stocking-footed. When we come to a sun-bathed bridge, we stand in the middle of it, watching the minnows swimming in the water below until we notice the eagles flying among the trees.

To see Santiago treading the boards, and the green cathedral of spring in other places, visit the gallery.

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Memory

Santiago is tracking a deer. He has been tracking deer relentlessly for weeks, but we’ve not seen any since Christmas Day, when he flushed eight of them–with their flashing, chorus-girl rear ends–from hiding behind an apartment garage. We are trotting beside a chain link fence at the edge of a park. Our footfalls are obliterating the hooved prints in the snow which constitute the trail that we are following. Santiago does not slow as he pulls me underneath a fallen maple tree lying across a tangle of shrubs. Its papery seeds brush my back as I crouch and run, seeing deer scat, now, beneath my boot.

Last week, I took Santi to a conservation meeting. Before leaving him in the car with a snack and a blanket, I let him run along a Mississippi River bluff in the dark of evening. He repeatedly burrowed his nose down into the snow, straining at the leash and begging to run off into the yards of neighboring river-dwellers or down the steep bank to the water. When we got home later that night, I had to wash the musky stench of deer urine off his snout.

Though we stop and stand very still beside the fence, gazing with held breath into the uniformity of the dun-gray trees against the white-gray sky, we do not see a deer. So we move on, and the day is full of wonders. Pink paddleboats are docked on the beach and dressed in snowdrifts under shifting, silver clouds. The squeals of children croon over the woods from a steep hill so slickened by their sleds that it is icy black mud in the middle. At the edge of a frozen marsh, someone has scattered birdseed over the toppled remains of a snowman, and, on a bench, two sprays of browning evergreens with painted pine cones and bright red bows have been left where a plaque spells out two names, “United in Marriage.”

Santiago watches a fisherman. The man has not yet reached the lake. He is dressed in dusky, winter finery: a padded blue coat and pants to match, the latter swishing softly as he walks across the snow. His hood is up, changing the shape of his head, and bulky boots and mittens further distort his silhouette. He moves slowly, deliberately. There is something prehistoric about his gait. An eight-foot rope is affixed to his waist, and he is hauling behind himself a plastic sled. It is loaded with the five-gallon bucket that will serve as his chair, along with the rest of his ice-fishing gear. Santiago keeps his eyes on the man, walking sideways, tail alert, a bark at the ready in his throat.

I do not know what my dog’s memories are. I know that when we encounter boys playing hockey on the rink at nightfall, he watches them under the stadium lights, pulling on the leash until we are out of their range. I know that he barks nervously at men swinging golf clubs on watered, green courses. I know that a park statue of a mustachioed man holding an axe once caused him to turn and run, looking over his shoulder, bleating.

We walk for a long time. We leave the clamor of the children behind, and the zip and rumble of snowmobiles on the lake. We walk beside birch trees. A bald eagle circles over a cemetery on a hill, next to a little, white chapel. I think about the juvenile eagle I saw just a few nights earlier, on Valentine’s Day, when the wind was cold and Santiago was nosing at the snow along the path and I wanted to go home. The bird emerged among the reaching fingertips of the trees–startlingly close and sudden–his wings mottled like marble or confetti, and huge, flapping in the gawky way of an adolescent, loping across the sky. It was two years since the day that I’d heard about the death of my cousin. That Valentine’s Day, I had sat in my car and seen in the bright blue sky above a traffic light my first bald eagle of the spring. I had bent my neck to watch him glide over rooftops wet with melting snow, flying toward a lake.

A minivan passes, leaving the park. A woman with brown curls that frame a pale, round face shouts from the passenger window, “I like your dog!” We have been walking uphill and I am warm with exertion. I take off my hat and gloves and stuff them into the bag that is slung across my chest. Chickadees call. A jogger approaches from behind us, a man in black spandex. “Our side,” I whisper to Santiago, and he minds for a moment, then catches a scent and wanders to the left snowbank for a sniff. “Hi, pup,” the man says, cupping a friendly palm to Santi’s snout without breaking his stride. Santi wags his tail.

There is a dog on the path ahead of us. She is made of cotton balls and nutmeg. About a year old, not quite full grown, she is walking with a woman in a powder blue hat who tugs on the leash each time the pup turns to look at Santi. He has not yet seen the the dog but is noting her aroma on the path. The woman stills her, forcing the canine to sit silently in a snowbank and witness our long advance. The cotton balls quiver. The brown eyes stare. Santiago sees her and begins to bark and tug. What might have been a one-and-a-half second passing is now an extended conflagration of dogs, their curiosity and anxiety sparked into a blaze of confused leashes and stretching muzzles.

“On by,” I say gently to Santiago as we skitter over a patch of cracking ice.

“All done,” I say.

I do not know the origin of my dog’s fears, which include basements and being left in the rain. I do not know the stories that he tells himself. I know that he likes pretty women and men in trucks and children. His adoption papers say that he ran away from home three times, and I’ve watched him attempt to board a city bus more times than that. I know that when the vet explained that the hairless patch of pink skin on Santi’s leg was caused by confinement in a space so small that he could not move, I burst into sobs so vehement that they embarrassed me. I know that big dogs make him bark louder and longer. I think that in his mind, he is small.

We walk for more than ninety minutes, passing through a tunnel bright with graffiti and flooded with ice. Santiago hunts for mice and rabbits in the tall grass and crusty snow around a hillside sewer cover. We can see traffic from here. There are fences around the houses beside the trail.

The puppy is off leash when we return. She stands for an instant, motionless on the path, the woman in the powder blue hat many feet behind her, shouting something. Santiago pauses, too, assessing the scene, then lunges to the end of his leash, whooping his baritone woof. The cotton balls surge: a thousand tufts of fluff each wagging independently in the winter wind. The puppy races toward us.

“It’s all right,” I call to the woman. “He’s friendly.”

The dogs meet at their snouts, then sniff, face to belly. And then they play: bouncing away from each other, dashing forward, hooting and hollering, ramming into snowbanks, chasing tail.

That’s all they wanted.

Before we go home, Santiago takes me through the woods. The sledders have gone quiet. Lunch hour has long since passed. Santi stops at the pond, considering. The snow here is packed hard by boots and the trees are young. They are slim and straight. On the ground, here and there, are weathered poplar leaves and broken birch limbs. Santiago is leading me up a hill. The path is narrow, trod by only a few feet. I realize as we climb that several months ago, when the evenings had become short and smelled of wood smoke, and the very latest berries of the season still clung to the trees, when we looked forward to the romance of pumpkins and Thanksgiving and the first snowfall, we stood at the bottom of this slope and stared into the uniformity of dun-gray trees against the dirt-gray earth, the sun sinking a cold gold behind us, and saw at last the magnificent buck that we had been tracking, up here, where we are now, watching us with his calm eyes, the crown of his rack like a faintly glinting, holy thing.

When we go to bed, Santiago dreams. His muffled barks sound like soap bubbles popping. His legs twitch. His mouth parts. I do not know what he sees. Perhaps he is wrestling with a dog made of cotton balls. Perhaps, freed at last from the tether of my leash, he has chased and seized a buck between his jaws. Perhaps he dines on venison. Perhaps he glides above treetops and steeples like an eagle among shifting, silver clouds.

Perhaps, at last, he is large.